Is HPV Hereditary?

If not, why does it occur in babies and cluster in families?

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is not considered hereditary, though at first glance may appear to be at times. The simple answer is that HPV is not transferred as part of the genes a baby acquires from each parent and is therefore not considered to be inherited. That said, there are times when HPV may occur in young children or cluster in families.

The more complex answer is that while HPV is not passed in the genome, the genes a person inherits may increase their susceptibility to infection if exposed, or the predisposition to develop HPV-related cancer if infected. In addition, common risk factors may lead to HPV clustering in families.

In addition, while the virus itself is not transferred as part of the genome, it may be transferred from a mother to an infant directly through blood during pregnancy (uncommon), by direct exposure during delivery, by direct contact (such as diaper changing) after delivery, and rarely, through contact with an object containing the virus. While HPV is classified as a sexually transmitted disease, sexual contact isn't necessary to transfer the infection.

Low angle view of smiling father picking up toddler at park
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Genetic Susceptibility

Genetic susceptibility, or a genetic predisposition to develop a condition due to a person's particular genetic make-up, can account for some of the times that HPV infection seems to cluster in families. We are learning that a person's genetics may affect the probability that they will develop some infections when exposed. There are a number of detailed reasons why this may be but comes down to genetic characteristics of a person's immune function.

It's more clear at this time that some specific genetic characteristics make it more likely that—when infected with a cancer-causing strain of HPV—a person will develop cancer. For example, a 2016 review of studies found that a certain genetic variation (polymorphism) led to susceptibility to HPV infection and cervical cancer. (When talking about cancer it's important to note that there are hundreds of HPV strains, and only roughly 15 associated with cancer.)

Common Risk Factors

The concept of "nature vs. nurture" is brought up often when looking at medical conditions. Nature refers to the impact of heredity while nurture refers to the impact of the environment, and it can sometimes be difficult to separate the two. For example, a condition that is totally hereditary may be attributed to similar lifestyle practices such as diet, and a condition that is totally environmental may seem to be genetic in origin as is the case with HPV infection.

While two siblings, for example, may share common genes, they may both develop an infection due to sharing common risk factors for getting HPV. Or, as noted below, both could potentially acquire the infection from another source, such as a parent during childhood.

Vertical Transmission

The most common reason people wonder whether HPV is hereditary is when the infection occurs in babies and young children. It's not unheard of for a baby to develop warts (papillomas) in his or her mouth, lungs, or on the vocal cords related to HPV, and it's well-documented that the virus can be transmitted from mother to child at times. There are four possible ways in which this occurs, with some much more common than others. (There has also been some recent evidence that suggests the virus may be transferred via sperm as well, but the research is very young.)

Prenatal Transmission (Transplacental)

While extremely uncommon, there is a small chance that HPV may be transferred from the mother's body to the baby during pregnancy. HPV DNA has been isolated from amniotic fluid, the placenta, and umbilical cord.

Perinatal Transmission (Via the Birth Canal)

More commonly, a baby may acquire HPV from a mother as it passes through the birth canal during delivery. When transmission occurs, papillomas may occur on the oral and nasal mucosa, in the throat, in the lungs, or sometimes even in the genital region. While transmission can occur, it's not considered to be common enough to recommend cesarian sections instead of vaginal births for mothers who are infected.

it's important to note that the strains of that cause HPV warts or papillomas are not the strains that can lead to cancer.

Postnatal Transmission (Direct Contact)

HPV is transmitted by direct (skin-to-skin) contact rather than sexual contact alone. This might occur during diaper changes, for example, if a parent touches their genitals and then changes a diaper without washing his or her hands.

Fomite Transmission

Much less commonly, HPV might be transmitted via contact with the virus on an object (fomite transmission). For example, a person might touch the region on themselves that is infected and then wipe with a towel. If the towel is moist and used relatively soon on the baby, the transmission could potentially occur.

A Word From Verywell

Even though it isn't hereditary, it is difficult to prevent HPV infection as no penetration is needed to transmit the virus. In addition, these viruses are very common and currently considered to be the most prevalent sexually transmitted disease. Certainly, safe sex practices and careful handwashing are important.

The best way to prevent vertical transmission from a mother to baby is for all females to receive one of the different HPV vaccines between the ages of 9 and 26, or even later. The FDA recently extended the age of women who qualify to receive the shot to 45. The vaccines not only cover the strains most likely to lead to cancer (such as cervical, anal, head and neck cancers, penile cancer, and more), but are effective against the strains most likely to cause genital warts—or papillomas in the mouths or throats of babies.

11 Sources
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